About three years ago, I overheard a former editor I worked for asking incredulously why young people didn’t tailor their clothes. I don’t have the time or money for that, I thought, and not all of my clothes are expensive or precious enough to invest in a seamstress. Sure, that’s nice for those whose wardrobes are lined with designer pieces, but it’s a luxury.
As you may have guessed, I take that all back.
The first time I had anything tailored was last year. I’d been to a vintage kilo sale, where for £15 you can buy any amount of items weighing a kilo in total. I’d rooted out some of the prettiest dresses I’d seen in a while – romantic florals with billowing sleeves and ruffled necklines – but when I got home and tried them on, it was glaringly obvious that dress sizes have changed a fair bit since the 1970s, and some of them were comedic in their length. But the stitching and cut displayed the kind of craftsmanship you’re hard-pressed to find on the high street these days. I didn’t want to waste them so I dropped by my nearest tailor, Alpine Dry Cleaners in south London, to see what they could do.
After asking about the length, fit and fall I wanted for each piece, a lovely woman with astoundingly quick hands pinned my dresses in all the right places, nipping in my waist, taking up the hem, and darting the side seams until her work was done. On my way home one evening, I collected my dresses (£60 for five items) and tried them on. Needless to say, they all fit like a glove. It was a marked change from the disappointing experience of shop changing rooms, and I get compliments on the altered dresses every time I wear them – not because they’re everyone’s taste, but because they look like they’re supposed to look. They hang naturally and accentuate parts of my body I’ve struggled to dress my whole life. For £75, I have five beautiful pieces that I wear on rotation, and which no one else has.
Freelance stylist and art director Victoria Bain has had a similar revelation. “I've always had trousers tailored to fit the right shoe for the style of trouser; wide-leg trousers to work with trainers, cigarette pants to crop right at the ankle for heels, and kick flare jeans to hit at the most flattering point for boots,” she explains. “So recently I have taken it a little further and had pieces altered at the waist to fit better. Some trousers can fit perfectly across the thigh and bottom but not so much at the waist – particularly with the high-waisted styles currently on trend.” Like many other British women, I battle with the high street’s varying sizes, coming up a 10 in some shops, a 12 or 14 in others. As Victoria notes, our bodies are not prescriptive, and most of us have proportions that the high street simply doesn’t cater for. Having had existing pieces tailored, Bain now also replicates her favourite shapes in new fabrics. “I recently found a local seamstress who can copy existing pieces, and had my favourite dress and skirt recreated in a few different fabrics. I feel that I’ve found the perfect shapes to fit my body shape and have created a kind of uniform for myself around that.”
But getting your clothes tailored isn’t just about a flattering fit. I used to go through so many clothes that my wardrobe was bursting at the seams, and pieces that had lost my interest lay discarded on my bedroom floor. With every seasonal trend landing in shops straight from the catwalks, we can try any aesthetic for very little financial cost. While it’s getting easier to shop consciously, thanks to the likes of H&M pledging to produce clothes with organic materials in the near future and Mango offering sustainable capsule collections, it’s still vital that we shop mindfully. When fashion’s carbon footprint is predicted to rise to 2,791 tonnes by 2030, and its water consumption to grow by half, isn’t less shopping and more investing the answer? You don’t need to buy secondhand to make the most of tailoring. Buy a pair of jeans that you love but don’t quite fit, get them tailored and you won’t need another pair until the knees are worn and the pockets are falling off.
When you view your clothes as things that go the distance, you develop a relationship with them that I had long forgotten about. As a teen I had a pair of shoes that I wore everywhere, from first dates to gigs, until the soles fell off. They were my prized possession and I have memories attached to them. I can’t say the same for the countless high street dresses I’ve run through. Somewhere along the way I lost my connection to the clothes I wear, perhaps because of the distance fast fashion creates between the maker and the buyer. When the underpaid workers that make our clothes are hidden from us via global shipping, we don’t consider their rights or their craft. One of the things I appreciate most when wearing my tailored dresses is the labour and love that went into them. I know the woman who sews my clothes, who turns them from sometimes shapeless or ill-fitting pieces into, well, mine.
Sewing is as old as time (Inuits in the Paleolithic era used caribou sinew as thread and needles made of bone to make garments), and is traditionally a female practice. For the majority of history, it was considered the only work fit for women (with very little pay), until the dandies of the early 19th century made fitted suits and sumptuous fabrics prestigious, after which men began to see tailoring as a reputable occupation. Enter Mayfair’s Savile Row. By 1846, Henry Poole, creator of the tuxedo jacket, had set up shop and the legacy of the street lives on today. In 2016, for the first time in its 213-year history, a female master tailor took her place among the already established with the opening of Kathryn Sargent's shop. “I wish people knew that bespoke tailoring is a traditional craft, and that every suit is the result of around 50-60 hours hand work,” Sargent tells me. “Bespoke garments are not throwaway clothes, but rather investment pieces. The training is hard, and the job involves an enormous amount of work.”
Sargent’s career path is a remarkable one, beginning with a trip to Paris: “I was always interested in fashion, in particular men wearing sharp suits, and wondered how to make them. As a teenager I remember going on a family holiday to Paris and noticed how differently the women dressed – their style and attention to detail inspired me to want to make things for stylish people.” From art school to fashion college, Sargent worked at smaller tailors before becoming Gieves & Hawkes’ first female head cutter, after which she set up her own business.
Sargent lives and breathes bespoke pieces, but why exactly does she believe people should have their clothes altered and tailored? “Because a badly fitting garment is a waste of your money,” she explains. A tailored piece “should feel comfortable and look effortless. The art is giving the client a garment that not only makes them look good but makes them feel good, too. A good fit should deliver style and elegance but also confidence and comfort.” Her advice for your trip to a seamstress? “It’s important to know your body type by experimenting and trying on different styles, but also getting some advice from a tailor can be helpful if you are unsure. Pick out colours that work well with your skin tone and don’t make you look washed out.”
That’s the beauty of having your pieces, whether vintage, high street or designer, tailored. Someone who knows their craft inside out can offer guidance, introduce you to new shapes you haven’t worn before and, most importantly, make you feel like those pieces are for you. Savile Row may be the epicentre of bespoke tailoring but seamstresses and tailors make a living on nearly every UK high street; just pop into your nearest dry cleaners, and it's more than likely they'll have an alterations service inside too. Ask for their opening times: I bet you'll soon be picking up your pieces after work, on first-name terms with your tailor.
The next time you fall in love with a piece of clothing, consider how investing in tailoring will make you cherish it for longer. Cast aside mindless shopping: the environment, your wardrobe and your body will thank you for it.